Race, faith, The Fire, police, spells

Books of the Region

February 22, 2004|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Black History Month has done well by Maryland, what with three new books published about Harriet Tubman. And her native Eastern Shore is the arena for Civil War on Race Street, by Peter B. Levy (University Press of Florida, 243 pages, $55), a book about civil rights, pro and con, in Cambridge -- where many a participant or bystander at those 1964 and 1967 National Guard call-outs still has urgent memories.

Levy lives in Towson and teaches at York College of Pennsylvania; after 10 years of interviewing and researching, he corrects many misimpressions. Item: Cambridge, home in boyhood to John Barth and William Jews, was far from the most racist Maryland community -- though after the 1950s collapse of its one large industry, Phillips Packing Co., black jobs and housing melted away.

Item: It was after visiting Cambridge in 1964 that Robert Kennedy first sympathized aloud with the social and economic underclass. Item: Gov. Spiro Agnew, a moderate when he arrived to tour 1967's fire zone, came away converted to the New Right. Item: H. Rap Brown's vitriolic Cambridge speech and its aftermath constituted a civil disturbance, not a real riot. Item: Had the town's volunteer, whites-only firefighters done their bounden duty, black homes and businesses would not have burned.

And, that rarity, a woman civil rights leader. Gloria Richardson (born in Baltimore; since 1967 moved to New York), was a heroine in her refusal to settle for crumbs. Talbot County finds it hard to memorialize Frederick Douglass? Levy, besides underlining the national attention to Cambridge's confrontations, quietly wonders when, in Dorchester County, there will be a monument to Richardson.

On vacation, Redmond C. S. Finney and his family go to Mount Desert Island, in Maine. Their large, 1916 house came with a caretaker named Percy Reed, a year-rounder whose family arrived in the 1700s. Reed's schooling, in the Depression, ended with eighth grade; yet he took to book-reading and journal-keeping. As friendship grew, Finney, in Baltimore the headmaster of Gilman School, was given access to these daily reflections.

The consequence is a thoughtful book, Finney's recent Summers With Percy (Downeast Graphics, 156 pages, $16.95 softbound). Not a churchgoer, Percy is absorbed with forests, gardens and the Eastern seaboard's only natural fjord; he muses also on people, less admiringly. "A new brand of summer visitor has appeared [with] a desire to change and to dominate." Such a person "worships entertainment and the acquisition of material possessions."

Finney, a fellow-proponent of the old faith -- character, values, work -- extols "a life of frugality and simplicity ... focused more on understanding the needs of others than upon oneself." And, "the respect and reverence we should have for Nature."

A century after The Fire, three accounts stand out among the many efforts to reduce to words the destruction of downtown Baltimore. The first such writer was H. L. Mencken -- he was there, a 23-year-old city editor who, long after, included a fire chapter in his autobiographical Newspaper Days. Next, Harold A. Williams, the young Sunday Sun editor who highlighted 1954's semi-centennial by interviewing survivors and writing Baltimore Afire (Schneidereith, 82 pages). And now, Peter B. Petersen of the Johns Hopkins University's business faculty, who, having ransacked the document files, is the centennial's author, with The Great Baltimore Fire (Maryland Historical Society, 216 pages, $30).

For the why, the where, the how-come and the omigod -- look over there! the B. & O. Building's on fire, headquarters for the whole railroad! -- all three versions should be read. Mencken, of course, is unequaled for the life and temporary death of a newspaper (The Herald, at Fayette and St. Paul, among the four dailies burned out). Williams re-creates the overall desolation, and the owners' resolve as they set out to rebuild the Burnt District. Petersen has the most details, the most and best photographs (especially by Henry E. Rinn, with tripod and view camera), and the soberest judgments.

In hindsight, attitudes and responses hold interest -- such as the immediate fear of looters; on request, Philadelphia and Washington sent police as well as firefighters. They cleared spectators out of the firefighters' way.

Then, there was Edwin Warfield, more active as president of the Fidelity & Deposit Co. (north of the fire zone) than in his other role as governor of Maryland.

And, The Sun, which editorially lit into Lawrason Riggs, commander of the National Guard (on active duty). His offense? When this newspaper applied for five press passes into the still-smoking ruins, Riggs had said no.

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